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25 November 2020

Why I’m completely addicted to BBC Two’s Industry

Three episodes in and I’m obsessed with Industry, a drama in which pretty much every character is completely horrible.  

By Rachel Cooke

Three episodes in and I’m completely addicted to Industry (1 December, 9.10pm), a drama in which pretty much every character is completely horrible. But then, you know me: given a choice between nasty but interesting, and decent but boring, I’ll always pick the former – in art, if not in life. As my crazes go, this one would be entirely predictable were it not the case that for quite long periods of time, I’ve no idea at all what anyone is talking about. The dialogue, bleeping with acronyms, is so arcane at times it might as well be another language. What, for instance, is “the ultimate hedge”? Personally, I favour beech. They look so glorious in the autumn.

Somehow, though, this doesn’t matter. Industry revolves around the lives of hungry graduates at a City investment bank, and every scene, no matter how overblown or cartoony (and many of them are), has an inner veracity found only rarely on TV. We don’t need to be told that its writers, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, know this world (both previously worked in it), and thanks to their glinting precision, it isn’t necessary to know what PnL stands for either. We still experience, as the market falls or someone is fired, the necessary lurch in the stomach; the queasiness; the oily feel of venality and greed. For me, it’s like time travel, and not only because banking, even now, stinks of the Eighties. The Pierpoint & Co trading floor reminds me so powerfully of the newsroom where I trained 30 years ago (ha! there was no training; it was instant death, with added nicotine) that whenever one of its characters seeks sanctuary in the loo, I’m instantly assailed by sepia images of myself sobbing in a cubicle somewhere in deepest east London.

Think of Industry as the bastard child of This Life and early Neil LaBute: “This Strife”, if you like (Industry is such a boring title). The cast is big and well-drawn, but we’re concerned mostly with a gang of four whose sharpest member by far is Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold), a black American whose college degree certificate is fake; she’s our heroine, because she’s making her own way, even if she is just as ruthless as the rest. Harper rents a room from her colleague, Yasmin Kara-Hanani (Marisa Abela), a girl who lives in her non-dom parents’ enormous Notting Hill-ish house and has a druggie boyfriend. At this point, we’re impressed by Yasmin’s sex drive, but not a lot else.

[see also: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films tell forgotten, hidden or hitherto ignored stories]

Meanwhile, in Finsbury Park, Gus Sackey (David Jonsson) is a slumming-it Old Etonian down from Oxford whose smugness is definitely not, as it might be in another show, a protective carapace (he’s black and gay as well as being posh and rich). He’s the kind of snob who tells people he read “literae humaniores” when he knows he could save them their embarrassment by saying “classics” instead. Gus is having a clandestine affair with an analyst he knew at school and who purports, vaguely, to be straight – a relationship that worries his flatmate Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey), whose vowels reveal that he went to a state school. The key to Rob lies in his surname. On the dating apps he has two profiles: one to appeal to fans of Jeremy Corbyn, and the other for nice, right-wing girls. (Like them all, he’s addicted to social media. “Why don’t you act like a normal person and fuck a load of strangers via tech?” he asks Harper, when she admits to being temporarily off Hinge.)

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Our quartet has various superiors, but the only one who matters is Eric Tao (Ken Leung), a gnomic Asian American who’s always waving something that resembles a baseball bat, but probably isn’t. He’s Yoda on steroids, and as terrifying as that sounds. But he recognises something in Harper, and wants to help her – and we, in turn, want to know if she’s up to his admiration. I read somewhere that Industry’s ratings are disappointing, that no one wants such meanness in lockdown.  But I’m telling you, this is one of the best things on TV: superbly acted, brilliantly written, dazzlingly energetic (Lena Dunham directed the first episode) – and, since it is full of bullshitting Old Etonians, it also chimes exquisitely with our times, Covid or not.


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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump